Oaklander Mac Barnett is a New York Times-bestselling author of stories for children whose books have been translated into more than 30 languages and sold more than four million copies worldwide.
Before all of this fame, he was a Children’s Fairyland Personality in 1992 (playing Peter Pan) and a proud graduate of Bishop O’Dowd High School.
He recently returned to Fairyland for the park’s annual Children’s Book Festival, where he and his local book illustrator/collaborators Christian Robinson (Twenty Questions, Leo: A Ghost Story) and Shawn Harris (A Polar Bear in the Snow, The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza) charmed the over 1500 visitors to the park that day, offering an interactive reading of their newest book, and staying afterward to sign the books they’d created.
“They were all so funny, and the kids were delighted,” said Angela Moffett, who happens to be an expert in the field. With a master’s degree in library science, she serves as Fairyland’s librarian. She’s responsible not only for the park’s popular toddler storytime project but also the Book Festival, which began in 2016, and this year featured 34 local authors/illustrators who reflect the diversity of the Oakland community. She says that her own young godson was “gobsmacked” to meet his favorite author.
Barnett says that he’s wanted to be a writer since he himself was a little kid and that he enjoys working with Robinson and Harris. “I fell in love with Christian’s work and reached out to him,” he said, noting that they both now live in Oakland. Their Twenty Questions was recently released. From the Penguin/Random House website: “In this spare yet expansive narrative, acclaimed author Mac Barnett poses twenty questions both playful and profound…Twenty Questions is a charming invitation to speculate without limits and know no bounds.”
Barnett describes his books in this way: “There are no tidy endings; life is absurd and silly and contains more questions than answers.”
He says that it does feel “bizarrely appropriate” that he visited the park so often when he was a child and then served as Peter Pan at Fairyland, roaming about with a wooden sword. “I love Fairyland’s physical space,” he said. “The make-believe world has effort and agency to it, extending a book or story’s reach to the real world.” Barnett now takes his two-year-old son Rafe to the park on a regular basis, whose favorite set is the Crooked Man. (“He’s obsessed.”)
In high school, Barnett became a volunteer reading tutor to young children, an experience that inspired him to become a writer himself. His mother saved his childhood picture books and young reader books. Frog and Toad was his favorite, he said, calling it “beautiful, complex, emotional and funny, with narrative experimentation.”
In fact, Barnett says, the experience of being with kids is his favorite part of the job, given how isolating the life of a writer can be. “Reading stories out loud is fundamentally a human thing,” he said. “The pandemic took that away.”
Thankfully Barnett actually found a way to keep himself—and his adoring young fans—engaged during the first years of the pandemic. He decided to tell kids stories at a time in which they’d lost structure. Every day at noon on Instagram, he would read a picture book from his home. “I had no expectations,” he recalls.
On the first day, tens of thousands of people tuned in. He began with a schedule of reading two times a day, seven days a week. He cut that back to a more manageable five-day-a-week schedule for two years, and the audience grew. He proudly notes that he was seen on all seven continents—“including Antarctica,” he is quick to note.
He wasn’t doing the show alone. His soulful hound dog Henry was by his side, “and he became everybody’s dog,” said Barnett. He explains that he got Henry when Barnett was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in his late twenties (he’s now 40) when he admits to being “in a dark place.” Henry helped. Barnett says that the dog came to his rescue once again during COVID. Likening his show to a “virtual campfire where everyone was listening and laughing at the same time,” he says that in a very inhuman time, the readings reaffirm our humanity.
Another excellent project came out of pandemic times, a collaborative creation with Shawn Harris. A hugely popular The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza live cartoon on YouTube was created by the two friends while sheltering in place in their own houses. It has since been turned into an action-packed and hysterical graphic novel series, with The First Cat in Space and the Soup of Doom scheduled for publication in the fall, along with Barnett and illustrator Jon Klassen’s How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney?
Most writers will not write more than a half-dozen books in their lifetimes, so their book dedications mostly honor family and close friends. But what if you have written 56 books?
Barnett laughs, noting that his son already has four books dedicated to him—“and he’s only two!” Others honored by Barnett: his mother, an architect friend who created a nonprofit tutoring center, Ms. Knox, his 7th-grade teacher who was the first to tell him he’d be a writer, and a bookseller in Houston who he met on one of his first book tours. And, of course, there’s a dedication to Mac’s Book Club Show fans.
Barnett observes that most of the publishing world is New York-centric, particularly insofar as children’s books go, and that he’s a proudly Oakland-based author.
And where in Oakland does Barnett buy books? East Bay Booksellers and Marcus Books are the stores he frequents most, he said.
The author will be back on the road soon. He just returned from a tour in Korea and will head off to Comic-Con in San Diego later this month.
What does Barnett hope readers will get out of his books? “ I hope they’re funny and leave room for kids to think through and find meaning. I like to write books immersive enough that they take over the whole world.”
And from Fairyland librarian Angela Moffett: “His books are timeless classics. He keeps trying new things, with something for everyone, from a one-year-old to a ten-year-old and everyone in between. He hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a kid.”
Corrections: This article incorrectly stated that Mac Barnett won a Caldecott award. This award honors illustrators, not writers. Barnett authored a book that won a Caldecott award. It also incorrectly stated the illustrator of Twenty Questions; the illustrator is Christian Robinson. Robinson’s last name was incorrectly spelled in the article. We regret the errors.